Sunday Focus: How are local school districts working to recruit, keep teachers?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 10, 2016

When Teach for America first assigned Mel Lein of South Bend, Ind., to Vidalia Junior High School, she was excited because the program said it was in the greater New Orleans area and the recent college graduate thought that experience would be a blast.

Then she learned Vidalia was a rural community hours away from the Big Easy and Lein said she wondered how she’d make it without Starbucks and Target. Things didn’t get off the ground great, either, because housing in Vidalia was an immediate concern with rent being higher than she could easily manage on a teacher’s salary.

But she focused on the curriculum, the students, eventually found affordable housing in Natchez and two years later, she’s signed on to continue teaching in the Concordia Parish School District, beyond her Teach for America requirements.

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Local administrators say teacher retention and recruiting don’t always end like Lein’s story, as the Natchez-Adams School District has struggled to find staff for more than 60 vacant positions this past month, and the Concordia Parish district still needs to hire nine teachers.

Natchez-Adams Interim Superintendent Fred Butcher said Friday, the district needs to hire 19 more staff members — 17 of them teachers. That’s a marked improvement, he said, compared to this time last year when the district needed to fill 43 teaching positions.

In Concordia Parish, Butcher, also a school board member for the parish, said the system needs to make nine teacher hires. The system started the summer needing to make 17 hires. Concordia Parish had three teacher openings this time last year.

The problems, administrators say, are a short supply of affordable housing, limited recreation, restaurant and shopping options, both systems have recently experienced turnover at the superintendent position, fewer people are going into teaching, and in the Natchez-Adams district, bad publicity has stuck to the school system.

“I tell people, if you like small towns, golf, hunting, fishing and going to the store, to church or the ballpark and seeing people you know, it’s a great place to be,” said Vidalia Junior High School Principal Whest Shirley. “It’s a safe, quiet town to raise a family, but it’s not for everybody.”

For people not looking for a relatively quiet town to raise a family, Butcher said the Miss-Lou can be a tough sell, but he said it is a good central location between Alexandria, Monroe, Jackson and Baton Rouge. In less than an hour and a half, you can get access to better shopping and restaurant options, Butcher said.

On the other hand, it doesn’t get much more rural than Monterey, said Monterey High School Principal Ralph Simmons, yet his school has fared fairly well with the exception of some difficult to place positions such as junior high and high school science, foreign language and math teachers.

Simmons said the district has success at his school by targeting people from Monterey or Concordia Parish as a whole who are interested in going into education and coming back to live near family in their home town. Another selling point being that the student discipline problems are rare and the administration has teachers’ backs, Simmons said.

“We are looking for people who are long-term solutions,” he said. “We have a family environment here, with a lot of people having put down roots in the community.”

For Natchez-Adams schools, the bad publicity is something the district has to own and work toward improving, Butcher said.

“To get over the hump, we have to make sure we can increase our test scores,” Butcher said. “And we can’t be so critical of each other, from school to school and classroom to classroom.

“I think we have to project a positive image to our children, and if our children buy into the positive image, they will go home and project that to our parents. And then we will be on a roll.”

For pitching to new teachers, Butcher said you almost have to treat it like recruiting for a basketball program.

“We are struggling right now, but you can come in and help us out,” he said.

Lein said Vidalia Junior High had a mission the year she entered the school to bring its Louisiana Department of Education report card up to a B, which the school achieved in the 2014-15 year as it became a Top Gains School.

The administration, teachers and students were all on board for this goal, Lein said.

“We all thought, ‘Hey, what can I do to make positive changes?’” she said. “Anytime I had an idea I could go to Coach Shirley, or if it was on a larger scale, the district, and the district was always wanting new ideas.

“Overall, the main reason I am staying is I see the district as a whole moving in a positive direction. We are all working together to try and make it a better place.”

Zandra McDonald, now interim assistant superintendent but earlier this year the Robert Lewis Magnet School principal, said she thinks RLMS has fared better than some other Natchez schools for reasons such as Lein explained combined with smaller class sizes and technology integration.

“When speaking with candidates, administrators communicate to candidates that the team at RLMS are mutually supportive of each other,” she said. “We understand the power of community within the school in making positive impacts on student growth and achievement.”

McDonald said one emphasis is addressing student behavior issues before it gets out of hand.

“Teachers want to be free to teach without distractions and without being overwhelmed with tons of things to do,” she said. “Teaching, in itself, is challenging, so the processes we put into place are done so that teachers can work efficiently and effectively.”

Teachers also have lives and families away from the school building, so McDonald said it was also important for the administration to respect that.

Concordia Parish School Board President Raymond Riley said he thinks the parish has the best school system in the area.

“We’ve had a bumpy road here lately for a minute, but we are getting back to where we need to be,” he said. “You treat teachers with dignity and respect, and another thing I see is nobody stands over teachers in our system to micromanage them.

“We give teachers the tools they need to work, and we let them work.”

Riley said one concern he’s had is keeping up with the pay differences in states such as Texas and Georgia.

“Some states are even offering bonuses for teachers coming,” he said. “But despite the high expectations in Louisiana, teacher pay is not that great. You know young people are coming out wanting to make money.”

Other states funding education better is a problem, Butcher said, but potential teachers going to other industries is a larger concern. Butcher said a student can take on another $20,000 to $30,000 in student debt and become a pharmacist instead.

“You start out making $90,000 to $100,000 instead of $30,000 to $35,000,” Butcher said. “Education, teaching, is really the basis for all other professions, so we need some of the brightest people going into education, just like they are in medicine, law and engineering.”

NASD Board President Amos James Jr. said the change in superintendents has started to make a difference in recruiting teachers. James said he also believes it will make a difference in retention.

“When people feel like they have job security, they are happier,” James said. “When you know next year that you are going to have a job unless it is something you have done wrong, something you haven’t achieved, that makes it a lot easier to sleep at night.”

James said the lack of restaurants, shopping options and recreation can be tough, but said he believes the city can get that turned around if all three government entities put aside problems and work together.

Despite the lack of business to attract many young teachers, board member Phillip West said the city does have a lot to sell.

“I believe we do have a good school district that is on the road to being improved,” he said. “We have a very interesting, historic community, and the educational system is one of the major centerpieces in Natchez’s overall development. If you come to Natchez, you are going to be able to contribute to something you can be proud of.”

Now that she’s been here without her Starbucks and Target, Lein said she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Downtown is really interesting — everywhere you walk there is a piece of history,” she said. “I’ve really, really come to love this place, and I’d rather have Natchez Coffee Company coffee than Starbucks anyway.”